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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                     55
as a tonic. He felt thirsty. Among the clumps he saw a
small puddle of brownish forest water and stretched out
to drink, but at once recoiled—out of the dark water,
against the background of the blue sky reflected in it, a
strange horrible face had peered at him. It was the face,
of a skeleton covered with a dark skin and overgrown
with untidy, already curling bristle. Large, round, wildly
shining eyes stared out of the deep sockets, and unkempt
hair hung down on the forehead in bedraggled strands.
"Is that me?" Alexei asked himself, and fearing to
look again he did not drink the water but put some snow
into his mouth instead and crawled on eastward, drawn
by that same powerful magnet.
That night he chose for his bivouac a large bomb
crater surrounded by a breastwork of yellow sand that
had been thrown up by an explosion. He found the bottom
of the crater quiet and cosy. The wind did not blow into
it, it merely rustled the sand that dribbled in from the
breastwork. From it the stars seemed unusually large and
appeared to be suspended low over his head. A shaggy
branch of a pine-tree that swayed to and fro beneath
the stars looked like a hand holding a rag and wiping and
polishing those shining lights. Before dawn it grew cold.
A raw mist hung over the forest. The wind changed. Now
it blew from the north, converting this mist into ice. When
the dull, belated light at last broke through the branches,
the dense mist descended and gradually dissolved, and
the ground all round was found to be covered with a
slippery, icy crust. The branch overhead no longer looked
like a hand holding a rag, but like a wonderful crystal
chandelier with small, suspended prisms tinkling gently
in the wind.
Alexei woke up feeling weaker than ever. He did not
even chew the pine bark of which he kept a stock in the
bosom of his flying suit. He tore himself off the ground
with difficulty, as if his body had been glued to it during
the night. Without brushing the ice from his clothes, beard
and moustache, he attempted to clamber up the side of
the crater, but his hands slipped on the sand that had
frozen during the night. Again and again he tried to get
out, but each time he slipped back to the bottom. His
efforts grew more and more feeble. At last he realised